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The Blue Shirts Go to Auckland

By Amanda Swiatocha | Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Why is it that certain pieces of clothing inspire specific behaviors? Growing up, my guidance counselor used to tell us that students who dress well and tie their shoelaces tight will do better on their final exam than their pajama-clad classmates. Recently, I heard that wearing a sports team uniform alongside teammates in the same garb can affect self-perception and confidence. In a recent New York Times article, I read that “if you wear a white coat that you believe belongs to a doctor, your ability to pay attention increases sharply.”


At IHI, I’ve noticed that donning one of our trademark blue polo shirts can lead to a transformation. As you may know, IHI plans and executes several conferences a year — ranging in size from 800 to over 5,000 attendees. Instead of relying on temporary or hotel help, IHI sends its staff to these conferences to “blueshirt” — to step out of our daily roles in marketing, finance, customer service, etc. — and help conferences run smoothly. Blueshirt responsibilities include setting up and breaking down the event, assisting with registration, interacting with faculty presenters, coordinating catering, helping exhibitors, and greeting and answering attendee questions, and countless other tasks to make the event exceptional, each and every time. My colleague in the Open School blogged last year about his first experience as a blueshirt, and several of my creative coworkers put together the infamous “Blue Shirt State of Mind” video to explain this role.


Selberg Forum


IHI COO Jeff Selberg tries the blueshirt on for size at National Forum Registration


This past September, IHI worked for the first time with our New Zealand-based partner Ko Awatea on the APAC Forum on Quality Improvement in Health Care. This new event brought over 800 people from 16 countries together in Auckland for three days of workshop sessions, keynotes, and networking. In addition to conference materials, IHI shipped down our blue shirts and a small team to help on the ground. In Auckland, our IHI blue shirt team would grow with the addition of six brand-new blueshirts — Ko Awatea staff who would be trained on how to blueshirt (yes, it can be a verb), and then help run the conference the very next day.

On the first day of blueshirt training, the Kiwis were quiet, thoughtful, and attentive. An observer might remark that they were a bit nervous about this new job that just landed on their plates. Dutifully, they wrote down notes and asked questions about what they would be doing starting at 5 AM the next day, when they would arrive on the conference floor in their new periwinkle polo.

Though they resisted a few of the blueshirt-isms (the requirement to tuck in your blue shirt didn’t sit well with the laid-back and casual Kiwis and pointing with an open palm rather than a finger was hard to remember) by the end of the first day of the conference, the Kiwi blueshirts were using the walkie-talkies with ease, shepherding attendees through lunch lines like pros, and smiling from ear-to-ear. It was as if the periwinkle polo (along with some brief training) had transformed them into confident and all-knowing event staff. Within the team, the blueshirts shared jokes, learned cultural vernacular, and worked together seamlessly. Need proof? Here’s a shot of the full team celebrating the success of the APAC Forum.




The APAC Forum blueshirts (plus a few special guests)


So the next time you’re looking for a team-building activity, forget the trustfalls … and bring out the blue shirts instead.

Note: Bring your team (no matching polos required) to Orlando, Florida, on December 9-12 to see 75+ IHI blueshirts in action at our National Forum on Quality Improvement in Health Care.

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